Book Club: The Code Economy ch. 1

Greetings! Grab a cup of coffee and pull up a chair. Tea is also good. Today we’re diving into chapter one of Philip Auerswald’s The Code Economy, “Jobs: Divide and Coordinate.”

I wish this chapter had been much longer; we speed through almost 2.5 million years of cognitive evolution in a couple of pages.

The earliest hominins had about the same short-term memory as a modern-day chimpanzee, which is to say they could keep track of only two operations at a time. … Our methods for creating tools gradually became more sophisticated, until we were using the tools we created to produce other tools in a repetitive and predictable manner. These processes for creating stone tools were among humanity’s first production algorithms-that is, the earliest code. They appeared almost simultaneously in human communities in most part of the world around 40,000 BC.


…[E.O.] Wilson refers to this phenomenon more broadly as the discovery of eusocial behavior… Wilson situates the date far earlier in human history than I do here. I chose 50,000 years [ago] because my focus is on the economy. it is clear that an epochal change in society occurred roughly 10,000 years BCE, when humans invented agriculture in six parts of the world simultaneously. The fact of this simultaneity directly suggests the advance of code represented by the invention of agriculture was part of a forward movement of code that started much earlier.

What do you think? Does the simultaneous advent of behavioral modernity–or eusociality–in far-flung human groups roughly 50,000 years ago, followed by the simultaneous advent of agriculture in several far-flung groups about 10,000 years ago speak to the existence of some universal, underlying process? Why did so many different groups of people develop similar patterns of life and technology around the same time, despite some of them being highly isolated? Was society simply inevitable?

The caption on the photo is similarly interesting:

Demand on Short-Term Working Memory in the Production of an Obsidian Axe [from Read and van der Leeuw, 2015] … We can relate the concepts invoked in the prodcution of stone tools to the number of dimensions involved and thereby to the size of short-term workign memory (STWM) required for the prodction of the kind of stone tools that exemplify each stage in hominin evolution. …

Just hitting the end of a pebble once to create one edge, as in the simplest tools, they calculate requires holding three items in the working memory. Removing several flakes to create a longer edge (a line), takes STWM 4; working an entire side takes STWM 5; and working both sides of the stone in preparation for knapping flakes from the third requires both an ability to think about the pebble’s shape in three dimensions and STWM 7.

(The Wikipedia article on Lithic Reduction has a lovely animation of the technique.)

It took about 2 million years to proceed from the simplest tools (working memory: 3) to the most complex (working memory: 7.) Since the Neolithic, our working memory hasn’t improved–most of us are still limited to a mere 7 items in our working memory, just enough to remember a phone number if you already know the area code.

All of our advances since the Neolithic, Auerswald argues, haven’t been due to an increase in STWM, but our ability to build complexity externally: through code. And it was this invention of code that really made society take off.

By about 10,000 BCE, humans had formed the first villages… Villages were the precursors of modern-day business firms in that they were durable association built around routines. … the advance of code at the village level through the creation of new technological combinations set into motion the evolution from simplicity to complexity that has resulted in the modern economy.

It was in the village, then, that code began to evolve.

What do you think? Are Read and van der Leeuw just retroactively fitting numbers 3-7 to the tools, or do they really show an advance in working memory? Is the village really the source of most code evolution? And who do you think is more correct, Herbert Spencer or Thomas Malthus?

Auerswald then forward to 1557, with the first use of the word “job” (spelled “jobbe,” most likely from “gobbe,” or lump.)

The advent of the “jobbe” a a lump of work was to the evolution of modern society something like what the first single-celled organism was to the evolution of life.


The “jobbe” contrasted with the obligation to perform labor continuously and without clearly defined roles–slavery, serfdom, indentured servitude, or even apprenticeship–as had been the norm throughout human history.

Did the Black Death help create the modern “job market” by inspiring Parliament to pass the Statute of Laborers?

I am reminded here of a passage from Gulick’s Evolution of the Japanese, Social and Psychic, (published in 1903):

The idea of making a bargain when two persons entered upon some particular piece of work, the one as employer, the other as employed, was entirely repugnant to the older generation, since it was assumed that their relations as inferior and superior should determine their financial relations; the superior would do what was right, and the inferior should accept what the superior might give without a question or a murmur. Among the samurai, where the arrangement is between equals, bargaining or making fixed and fast terms which will hold to the end, and which may be carried to the courts in case of differences, was a thing practically unknown in the older civilization. Everything of a business nature was left to honor, and was carried on in mutual confidence.

“A few illustrations of this spirit of confidence from my own experience may not be without interest. On first coming to Japan, I found it usual for a Japanese who wished to take a jinrikisha to call the runner and take the ride without making any bargain, giving him at the end what seemed right. And the men generally accepted the payment without question. I have found that recently, unless there is some definite understanding arrived at before the ride, there is apt to be some disagreement, the runner presuming on the hold he has, by virtue of work done, to get more than is customary. This is especially true in case the rider is a foreigner. Another set of examples in which astonishing simplicity and confidence were manifested was in the employment of evangelists. I have known several instances in which a full correspondence with an evangelist with regard to his employment was carried on, and the settlement finally concluded, and the man set to work without a word said about money matters. It need hardly be said that no foreigner took part in that correspondence. …

“This confidence and trustfulness were the product of a civilization resting on communalistic feudalism; the people were kept as children in dependence on their feudal lord; they had to accept what he said and did; they were accustomed to that order of things from the beginning and had no other thought; on the whole too, without doubt, they received regular and kindly treatment. Furthermore, there was no redress for the peasant in case of harshness; it was always the wise policy, therefore, for him to accept whatever was given without even the appearance of dissatisfaction. This spirit was connected with the dominance of the military class. Simple trustfulness was, therefore, chiefly that of the non-military classes.

“Since the overthrow of communal feudalism and the establishment of an individualistic social order, necessitating personal ownership of property, and the universal use of money, trustful confidence is rapidly passing away.

We still identify ourselves with our profession–“I am a doctor” or “I am a paleontologist”–but much less so than in the days when “Smith” wasn’t a name.

Auerswald progresses to the modern day:

In the past two hundred years, the complexity of human economic organization has  increased by orders of magnitude. Death rates began to fall rapidly in the middle of the nineteenth century, due to a combination of increased agricultural output, improved hygiene, and the beginning of better medical practices–all different dimensions of the advance of code…. Greater numbers of people living in greater density than ever before accelerated the advance of code.

Sounds great, but:

By the twentieth century, the continued advance of code necessitated the creation of government bureaucracies and large corporations that employed vast numbers of people. These organizations executed code of sufficient complexity that it was beyond the capacity of any single individual to master.

I’ve often wondered if the explosion of communist disasters at the beginning of the 20th century occurred because we could imagine a kind of nation-wide code for production and consumption and we had the power to implement it, but we didn’t actually have the capabilities and tools necessary to make it work.

We can imagine Utopia, but we cannot reach it.

Auerswald delineates two broad categories of “epochal change” as a result of the code-explosion of the past two centuries: First, our capabilities grew. Second:

“we have, to an increasing degree, ceded to other people–and to code itself–authority and autonomy, which for millennia we had kept unto ourselves and our immediate tribal groups as uncodified cultural norms.”

Before the “job”, before even the “trade,” people lived and worked far more at their own discretion. Hoeing fields or gathering yams might be long and tedious work, but at least you didn’t have to pee in a bottle because Amazon didn’t give you time for bathroom breaks.

Every time voters demand that politicians “bring back the jobs” or politicians promise to create them, we are implicitly stating that the vast majority of people are no longer capable of making their own jobs. (At least, not jobs that afford a modern lifestyle.) The Appalachians lived in utter poverty (the vast majority of people before 1900 lived in what we would now call utter poverty), but they did not depend on anyone else to create “jobs” for them; they cleared their own land, planted their own corn, hunted their own hogs, and provided for their own needs.

Today’s humans are (probably not less intelligent nor innately capable than the average Appalachian of 1900, but the economy (and our standards of living) are much more complex. The average person no longer has the capacity to drive job growth in such a complicated system, but the solution isn’t necessarily for everyone to become smarter. After all, large, complicated organizations need hundreds of employees who are not out founding their own companies.

But this, in turn, means all of those employees–and even the companies themselves–are dependent on forces far outside their control, like Chinese monetary policy or the American electoral cycle. And this, in turn, raises demand for some kind of centralized, planned system to protect the workers from economic hardship and ensure that everyone enjoys a minimum standard of living.

Microstates suggest themselves as a way to speed the evolution of economic code by increasing the total number of organisms in the ecosystem.

With eusociality, man already became a political (that is, polis) animal around 10,000 or 40,000 or perhaps 100,000 years ago, largely unable to subsist on his own, absent the tribe. We do not seem to regret this ill-remembered transition very much, but what about the current one? Is the job-man somehow less human, less complete than the tradesman? Do we feel that something essential to the human spirit has been lost in defining and routinizing our daily tasks down to the minute, forcing men to bend to the timetables of factories and international corporations? Or have we, through the benefits of civilization (mostly health improvements) gained something far richer?

When did language evolve?

The smartest non-human primates, like Kanzi the bonobo and Koko the gorilla, understand about 2,000 to 4,000 words. Koko can make about 1,000 signs in sign language and Kanzi can use about 450 lexigrams (pictures that stand for words.) Koko can also make some onomatopoetic words–that is, she can make and use imitative sounds in conversation.

A four year human knows about 4,000 words, similar to an exceptional gorilla. An adult knows about 20,000-35,000 words. (Another study puts the upper bound at 42,000.)

Somewhere along our journey from ape-like hominins to homo sapiens sapiens, our ancestors began talking, but exactly when remains a mystery. The origins of writing have been amusingly easy to discover, because early writers were fond of very durable surfaces, like clay, stone, and bone. Speech, by contrast, evaporates as soon as it is heard–leaving no trace for archaeologists to uncover.

But we can find the things necessary for speech and the things for which speech, in turn, is necessary.

The main reason why chimps and gorillas, even those taught human language, must rely on lexigrams or gestures to communicate is that their voiceboxes, lungs, and throats work differently than ours. Their semi-arborial lifestyle requires using the ribs as a rigid base for the arm and shoulder muscles while climbing, which in turn requires closing the lungs while climbing to provide support for the ribs.

Full bipedalism released our early ancestors from the constraints on airway design imposed by climbing, freeing us to make a wider variety of vocalizations.

Now is the perfect time to break out my file of relevant human evolution illustrations:

Source: Scientific American What Makes Humans Special

We humans split from our nearest living ape relatives about 7-8 million years ago, but true bipedalism may not have evolved for a few more million years. Since there are many different named hominins, here is a quick guide:

Source: Macroevolution in and Around the Hominin Clade

Australopithecines (light blue in the graph,) such as the famous Lucy, are believed to have been the first fully bipedal hominins, although, based on the shape of their toes, they may have still occasionally retreated into the trees. They lived between 4 and 2 million years ago.

Without delving into the myriad classification debates along the lines of “should we count this set of skulls as a separate species or are they all part of the natural variation within one species,” by the time the homo genus arises with H Habilis or H. Rudolfensis around 2.8 million years ag, humans were much worse at climbing trees.

Interestingly, one direction humans have continued evolving in is up.

Oldowan tool

The reliable production of stone tools represents an enormous leap forward in human cognition. The first known stone tools–Oldowan–are about 2.5-2.6 million years old and were probably made by homo Habilis. These simple tools are typically shaped only one one side.

By the Acheulean–1.75 million-100,000 years ago–tool making had become much more sophisticated. Not only did knappers shape both sides of both the tops and bottoms of stones, but they also made tools by first shaping a core stone and then flaking derivative pieces from it.

The first Acheulean tools were fashioned by h Erectus; by 100,000 years ago, h Sapiens had presumably taken over the technology.

Flint knapping is surprisingly difficult, as many an archaeology student has discovered.

These technological advances were accompanied by steadily increasing brain sizes.

I propose that the complexities of the Acheulean tool complex required some form of language to facilitate learning and teaching; this gives us a potential lower bound on language around 1.75 million years ago. Bipedalism gives us an upper bound around 4 million years ago, before which our voice boxes were likely more restricted in the sounds they could make.

A Different View

Even though “homo Sapiens” has been around for about 300,000 years (or so we have defined the point where we chose to differentiate between our species and the previous one,) “behavioral modernity” only emerged around 50,000 years ago (very awkward timing if you know anything about human dispersal.)

Everything about behavioral modernity is heavily contested (including when it began,) but no matter how and when you date it, compared to the million years or so it took humans to figure out how to knap the back side of a rock, human technologic advance has accelerated significantly over the past 100,000 and even moreso over the past 50,000 and even 10,000.

Fire was another of humanity’s early technologies:

Claims for the earliest definitive evidence of control of fire by a member of Homo range from 1.7 to 0.2 million years ago (Mya).[1] Evidence for the controlled use of fire by Homo erectus, beginning some 600,000 years ago, has wide scholarly support.[2][3] Flint blades burned in fires roughly 300,000 years ago were found near fossils of early but not entirely modern Homo sapiens in Morocco.[4] Evidence of widespread control of fire by anatomically modern humans dates to approximately 125,000 years ago.[5]

What prompted this sudden acceleration? Noam Chomsky suggests that it was triggered by the evolution of our ability to use and understand language:

Noam Chomsky, a prominent proponent of discontinuity theory, argues that a single chance mutation occurred in one individual in the order of 100,000 years ago, installing the language faculty (a component of the mind–brain) in “perfect” or “near-perfect” form.[6]

(Pumpkin Person has more on Chomsky.)

More specifically, we might say that this single chance mutation created the capacity for figurative or symbolic language, as clearly apes already have the capacity for very simple language. It was this ability to convey abstract ideas, then, that allowed humans to begin expressing themselves in other abstract ways, like cave painting.

I disagree with this view on the grounds that human groups were already pretty widely dispersed by 100,000 years ago. For example, Pygmies and Bushmen are descended from groups of humans who had already split off from the rest of us by then, but they still have symbolic language, art, and everything else contained in the behavioral modernity toolkit. Of course, if a trait is particularly useful or otherwise successful, it can spread extremely quickly (think lactose tolerance,) and neither Bushmen nor Pygmies were 100% genetically isolated for the past 250,000 years, but I simply think the math here doesn’t work out.

However, that doesn’t mean Chomsky isn’t on to something. For example, Johanna Nichols (another linguist,) used statistical models of language differentiation to argue that modern languages split around 100,000 years ago.[31] This coincides neatly with the upper bound on the Out of Africa theory, suggesting that Nichols may actually have found the point when language began differentiating because humans left Africa, or perhaps she found the origin of the linguistic skills necessary to accomplish humanity’s cross-continental trek.

Philip Lieberman and Robert McCarthy looked at the shape of Neanderthal, homo Erectus, early h Sapiens and modern h Sapiens’ vocal tracts:

In normal adults these two portions of the SVT form a right angle to one another and are approximately equal in length—in a 1:1 proportion. Movements of the tongue within this space, at its midpoint, are capable of producing tenfold changes in the diameter of the SVT. These tongue maneuvers produce the abrupt diameter changes needed to produce the formant frequencies of the vowels found most frequently among the world’s languages—the “quantal” vowels [i], [u], and [a] of the words “see,” “do,” and “ma.” In contrast, the vocal tracts of other living primates are physiologically incapable of producing such vowels.

(Since juvenile humans are shaped differently than adults, they pronounce sounds slightly differently until their voiceboxes fully develop.)

Their results:

…Neanderthal necks were too short and their faces too long to have accommodated equally proportioned SVTs. Although we could not reconstruct the shape of the SVT in the Homo erectus fossil because it does not preserve any cervical vertebrae, it is clear that its face (and underlying horizontal SVT) would have been too long for a 1:1 SVT to fit into its head and neck. Likewise, in order to fit a 1:1 SVT into the reconstructed Neanderthal anatomy, the larynx would have had to be positioned in the Neanderthal’s thorax, behind the sternum and clavicles, much too low for effective swallowing. …

Surprisingly, our reconstruction of the 100,000-year-old specimen from Israel, which is anatomically modern in most respects, also would not have been able to accommodate a SVT with a 1:1 ratio, albeit for a different reason. … Again, like its Neanderthal relatives, this early modern human probably had an SVT with a horizontal dimension longer than its vertical one, translating into an inability to reproduce the full range of today’s human speech.

It was only in our reconstruction of the most recent fossil specimens—the modern humans postdating 50,000 years— that we identified an anatomy that could have accommodated a fully modern, equally proportioned vocal tract.

Just as small children who can’t yet pronounce the letter “r” can nevertheless make and understand language, I don’t think early humans needed to have all of the same sounds as we have in order to communicate with each other. They would have just used fewer sounds.

The change in our voiceboxes may not have triggered the evolution of language, but been triggered by language itself. As humans began transmitting more knowledge via language, humans who could make more sounds could utter a greater range of words perhaps had an edge over their peers–maybe they were seen as particularly clever, or perhaps they had an easier time organizing bands of hunters and warriors.

One of the interesting things about human language is that it is clearly simultaneously cultural–which language you speak is entirely determined by culture–and genetic–only humans can produce language in the way we do. Even the smartest chimps and dolphins cannot match our vocabularies, nor imitate our sounds. Human infants–unless they have some form of brain damage–learn language instinctually, without conscious teaching. (Insert reference to Steven Pinker.)

Some kind of genetic changes were obviously necessary to get from apes to human language use, but exactly what remains unclear.

A variety of genes are associated with language use, eg FOXP2. H Sapiens and chimps have different versions of the FOXP2 gene, (and Neanderthals have a third, but more similar to the H Sapiens version than the chimp,) but to my knowledge we have yet to discover exactly when the necessary mutations arose.

Despite their impressive skulls and survival in a harsh, novel climate, Neanderthals seem not to have engaged in much symbolic activity, (though to be fair, they were wiped out right about the time Sapiens really got going with its symbolic activity.) Homo Sapiens and Homo Nanderthalis split around 800-400,000 years ago–perhaps the difference in our language genes ultimately gave Sapiens the upper hand.

Just as farming appears to have emerged relatively independently in several different locations around the world at about the same time, so behavioral modernity seems to have taken off in several different groups around the same time. Of course we can’t rule out the possibility that these groups had some form of contact with each other–peaceful or otherwise–but it seems more likely to me that similar behaviors emerged in disparate groups around the same time because the cognitive precursors necessary for those behaviors had already begun before they split.

Based on genetics, the shape of their larynges, and their cultural toolkits, Neanderthals probably did not have modern speech, but they may have had something similar to it. This suggests that at the time of the Sapiens-Neanderthal split, our common ancestor possessed some primitive speech capacity.

By the time Sapiens and Neanderthals encountered each other again, nearly half a million years later, Sapiens’ language ability had advanced, possibly due to further modification of FOXP2 and other genes like it, plus our newly modified voiceboxes, while Neanderthals’ had lagged. Sapiens achieved behavioral modernity and took over the planet, while Neanderthals disappeared.


Review: Decoding Neanderthals on PBS (Nova)

Available on Netflix, maybe elsewhere.

Overall: Recommended if you like Neanderthals or human ancestry. Probably not useful if you are already an expert in the field.

Pros: interesting discussion of flint-knapping, gluey pitch production, and Neanderthal burials.

Flint knapping is one of my occasional interests. It is surprisingly difficult to just pick up a rock and produce a useful tool. Without a good teacher, you quickly degenerate to banging the rock on the ground as hard as you can like a retarded monkey. If Kanzi the bonobo saw me trying to make stone tools, he’d probably bring me some fruit out of pity. “Poor hairless idiot ape,” Kanzi would think. “Can’t even make tools. If I don’t feed it, it’ll starve.”

Amusing digression time: Once I was walking through the city, in a semi-developed/semi-overgrown lot, and saw a bit of shiny rocks lying around on the ground. Unusual for the area, because the local geographic history hasn’t led to a lot of rocks on the surface, and most of those are of the duller sedimentary sorts (or, obviously, landscaping materials.) So I picked up this bit of flint, then another bit of flint, and then a larger one with obvious convex areas from being struck with another piece. And a few feet away, here was a piece that fit comfortably into my hand, perfect for knocking chips off the other chunk. Some of the pieces I even managed to fit back together, reassembling the rock that once was.

I came back with a small box and picked up all the bits of flint before development began on the lot. One piece does look like an arrowhead, but given that I found it alongside a bunch of chips that are more or less flint-knapping trash, the arrowhead’s creator probably thought there was something wrong with it.

Sure, the whole little box may be filled with little more than ancient trash, there is something I love about picking up these rocks and being able to see in their shapes the actions of some other humans, the angle they held that rock at, the way they smacked it with another rock to produce these flakes. To feel this connection between myself and some other human who walked here before me, and the traces of their life that no one else walking through that place had noticed.

Anyway, turns out the Neanderthals had a pretty interesting/unique way of making flint tools, that involved first shaping a large block of flint into a specific shape by flaking bits off the sides, and then, with one good hit, knocking off one large slice. This is a more complicated process than merely picking up a rock and whacking bits off of it it until you get an edge.

The gluey pitch seems to have been derived (distilled?) from birch bark. Some scientists demonstrated the process by burning a roll of birch bark in a pit, but they obviously did not use enough bark, and only got a smudge of goo. It’s a bit frustrating watching someone do something obviously wrong–since you’re filming this for TV, why not use a great big bunch of birch bark so you can get enough pitch to actually show us?

Anyway, looks like Neanderthals distilled this gluey stuff and then used it to help secure the flint tips to their spears, before thrusting them into the sides of enormous shaggy elephants, which are quite formidable animals. So the pitch (and bindings) had to be pretty darn good.

Neanderthals also seem to have buried their dead, though the show notes that their potential grave-goods pale in comparison to similar human burials.

The parts about Neanderthal DNA will be of interest to you if you don’t know about the Neanderthal/human DNA admixture business already, or you’ve heard about it but are still a little unclear on the details. The scientists interviewed claimed that it looks like there were a lot of interbreeding incidents rather than just a few, but “a lot” in this case does not necessarily mean “thousands”.


Cons: For a program that goes into depth on how inaccurate depictions of Neanderthals happened (ages ago, someone found a skeleton with arthritis and concluded that all Neanderthals were stooped,) their depiction of the homo Sapiens who first encountered the Neanderthals was also inaccurate.

The first encounters between humans and Neanderthals probably happened in the Middle East, shortly after h Sapiens left Africa, but before they had split into Asian and European branches. In other words, not to put too fine a point on it, whites did not yet exist. We’re not sure exactly when white skin evolved, but it probably wasn’t before h Sapiens got to Europe.

(Of course, it could be the other way around, and it’s the Bushmen who’ve changed since they split off.)

Either way, it’s pretty easy to assume things that are probably wrong, and the h Sapiens who first encountered h Neanderthals were probably more similar in appearance to modern Africans or Middle Easterners than Europeans.

A second issue occurred during a dramatization of the Neanderthal and h Sapiens DNA. Neanderthal DNA was depicted as red, and h Sapiens as blue. (Erm, I think. Unless I’ve got it backwards.) They then showed a “combined” DNA strand with blue and red pieces.

While this is a fine way to visualize what’s going on, I would just like to clarify that DNA isn’t actually blue or red, nor are there folks running around with mosaic red/blue variants.

You may be laughing (I burst out laughing at the sight of it,) but I know people who would very sincerely and devoutly insist that “Humans have different colored DNA from Neanderthals. I saw this program on PBS all about it, and I know PBS is accurate. You should watch the program!”

You can imagine how talking to these people makes me feel.

Finally, my last complaint is that there was no discussion of Neanderthal DNA in Native Americans!

Worldwide distribution of B006, (from Yotova et al. “An X-Linked Haplotype of Neandertal Origin Is Present Among All Non-African Populations,” Mol. Biol. Evol. 28 (7), 2011).
Worldwide distribution of B006, (from Yotova et al. “An X-Linked Haplotype of Neandertal Origin Is Present Among All Non-African Populations,” Mol. Biol. Evol. 28 (7), 2011).
SNP PCA from Skoglund & Jakobsson’s “Archaic Human Ancestry in East Asia” (2011)
SNP PCA from Skoglund & Jakobsson’s “Archaic Human Ancestry in East Asia” (2011)

Right, so what’s up with Native Americans? You may have noticed that during the discussion with the map, no jellybeans were placed on the Americas at all. What a pity, when there’s still so much about the peopling of the Americas that we don’t know.

In the future, I’m hoping for similar documentaries about the Denisovans and their DNA admixture in modern humans.